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Does anyone miss standard definition?

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Maybe I’ve gone mental. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to support that possibility. After all, the first two things I moved into my new flat last weekend were a toy squirrel and a doorstop that also looks like a squirrel. So keep this in mind when you read the following musings. These are the words of a squirrel-ferrier. Nonetheless, I have a point to make: I'm starting to miss standard definition.

There are loads of reasons for my pangs of remorse over the switch to HD. Firstly, there’s the technical point of view. It’s a fact that image resolution is one of the biggest factors affecting frame rates in video games. Any PC gamer will tell you that reducing the resolution immediately has a massive effect on gameplay fluidity. Console-wise, Xbox One is struggling to match PS4 in terms of full HD gaming on multiplatform releases, so some sectors of the community are getting very sad (or ecstatically happy) about that. Games would look amazing if we all still used standard definition. I've had developers tell me themselves, there's so much more they could do if they were still working at 640x480. I reckon a decent CRT running at 120hz would probably be able to replicate movie-like visuals by now.

Instead, we’re constantly asking for greater resolution and it’s crippling our games, scuppering the real potential of 2014’s amazing graphical technology. Sure, Battlefield and Tomb Raider may have different frame-rates now between the two new machines, but just wait until future games are scaled back to run the same on both machines. And wait some more until 4K becomes a consideration for all developers. Mark my words, it's not always going to be pretty. 4K gaming is not necessary, but I'm sure we'll be dipping our toes into it before the new generation is out.

The aesthetic appeal of standard definition has been forgotten, mostly because modern TVs display it so poorly. I'm sure you've probably hooked up a PS2 to a modern TV and baulked at the quality of the picture. No, it didn't always used to look that bad and no, you weren't just used to it. Modern TVs are stretching the pixels to fit a different resolution screen. And it honestly wouldn't surprise me if PS3's backwards compatibility was deliberately rendered in a basic fashion as possible just to make modern games look better.

Again, I appreciate this isn’t the most popular opinion to have, but I like pixels. I played through Streets of Rage 2 again this week and the graphics are gorgeous. Played through my HDTV, every pixel is beautiful. The artistry that goes into making standard-def sprites is not the same as that used for making HD spritework. When you have to convey expression and movement with only a few dozen lines of vertical res, you have to work miracles. And that’s exactly what SoRII does.

But I’m not only talking about 2D art. Standard Def also makes 3D games look… different. Firstly, it can be used to mask low-poly counts. Perhaps not something that’s needed so much these days, but any processing power saved through such primitive masking can be used for other things.

Then there’s the simple joy of seeing individual pixels. The twinkle of a pixel from a 3D model on a 32-bit console can be beautiful--especially when the 3D is often running at an even lower resolution than the SD TV it’s playing on.

I’m talking about games like NiGHTS, of course (big surprise there), where the edge of the character’s arm momentarily strays into the next line of visual display, lighting it up instantly because there’s no graphical frippery going on like anti-aliasing. Jaggies in HD are ugly. Standard def aliasing can be beautiful. Not always, but it has its moments. NiGHTS runs at half standard-def (320x240) which is pretty tiny. Sure, the shaky polygons of 1996 look awful when used for the scenery, but I love the way the character looks in the center of the screen. The modern XBLA re-release simply isn't as magical and it's all about those glistening areas of fine detail.

Then, of course, there’s the simple fact that HDTVs don’t work with some of my old gaming devices. My modern Samsung won’t even display my ZX Spectrum, even though older Sammys will. Also my Saturn and Dreamcast light guns just sit sadly in their boxes now because the technology that made them work isn’t the same as that in modern TVs. The flash from the screen is now too smooth, so it can’t recognise its position. Result? No more House of the Dead or Virtua Cop for me. That's really sad. The Wii Remote and Wii Blaster are good, but the original HotD and Virtua Cops aren't available on the system.

Worse still, modern consoles have pretty much abandoned Standard Def. Wii U comes with an HDMI cable only, Xbox One is HDMI only and PlayStation 4 is (you guessed it) HDMI only. All the new pixels have done is just make it harder to imagine anything beyond what you’re actually being shown. When there’s no need to imagine because everything is presented in perfect clarity, I firmly believe something is lost. 

The lower resolution makes me want to connect with what the developer is trying to show me all the more. I want to be able to see through the mesh of squares and understand what I'm being shown. The feeling is fascinating: That someone on the other side of this technology is showing me something and that I can decipher the signals and reconstruct it in my mind to the same image. It pushes buttons in my head that modern games do not. Standard def forced developers to work harder to convey what they wanted us to see, and we could imagine that image as perfect, instead of seeing every single blemish.

Let me be clear here. I am definitely not saying I want modern games to look like they did in the late 1990s when console gaming was starting to run at true SD resolutions for the first time. The restricted colour palettes, texture quality, lack of Z buffering and what-have-you are not good things by anyone's standards. Sure, limited colours can make for superb stylised visuals, but we've moved past that. Visuals can now be stylised through artistic choice, not necessity.

Modern graphics can use every trick in the book and still run at crazy frame rates in standard def now. I believe the industry has forced itself into the HD era prematurely and we could be enjoying sensational gaming in standard def had we stuck on that slightly pixellated path. I'm certainly not still playing games on a standard def TV. My personal 1080p, 3D-capable setup is pretty damn sweet. But games are games no matter how they're displayed and every now and then I do yearn for an SD set again.

I'm not saying less is more. But I do sometimes feel like more is less.

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47 comments

  • alllifeinfate - March 17, 2014 7:57 p.m.

    I do miss the old presentation... and when the the resolution of the channels of yesteryears do not look as sharp as they used to be on the old television, now I know it is because of the newer batch of televisions that do not cater to that generation any more. Understand the argument here, but you can always look out for the old batch of television sets... these new batch would cater to the newer generation and that's how it's going to be.
  • GOD - January 31, 2014 12:30 a.m.

    You're not crazy Justin, just different. I don't really agree on SD looking better with the less is more, but you do make a good point that if games weren't required to be at such high resolutions they could be using that extra power for other things in the actual game. I think that's a point that a lot of other people who read this missed. Say you have a zombie game like DR3 on Xbox One that's got say X amount of enemies on screen. Well if weren't concerned with it looking "next gen" they probably could have put that power towards even more zombies on screen at once. Or the same amount of zombies but them having better AI. The best thing to pull from this article is that rather than trying to push systems to their graphical limits, developers should prioritize gameplay, and then use the remaining power to determine visuals. This means ultimately better games, even if they don't look as high res.
  • TomWhite - January 30, 2014 9:59 p.m.

    Nothing weird about missing the look of standard def. It had a lo-fi aesthetic and perhaps a somewhat softer look; it's a similar thing to enjoying music on vinyl as opposed to CD. However the drive towards hi-res technology is a good thing because it's more versatile. For example, if you wanted to you could in theory emulate the look of standard def, dot crawl, even snow in software.
  • revidium - January 28, 2014 5:33 a.m.

    Nice example of someone desperately trying to think of something to write about and coming up with the worst possible idea. The classic remember the olden days argument. Games have been in HD for almost 10 years. There have been a metric ton of great games in those 10 years. If you want simple graphics look no further than the indie scene. Now shut up and think of something better to write about.
  • Unoriginal - January 28, 2014 2:23 a.m.

    I do agree with one thing in this article; that maybe Justin has gone mental. Sure, the transition into HD was kinda awkward and sometimes I miss the old imagination fueled limited display of SD but nostalgia does that to you. Games like Journey, Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us would have lost a lot of what made them good in 480p. I'm not saying High Definition makes a game worth playing but it brings a certain kind of immersion to the table, just like SD, but this is a different kind of immersion. We've already had (and hopefully still own) all those awesome SD experiences and I think it's important to keep moving forward, racing on the frontlines to avoid stagnation. And with the 3DS, indies and studios like Ubisoft are capturing some of that SD lightning in a bottle from time to time I think it's safe to say that even with the move forward we will never really lose what we gained in the past. I'm currently playing Bravely Default and it is giving me the exact same tinglies Chrono Trigger did back in the 90s.
  • emilin_rose - January 27, 2014 11:21 p.m.

    I feel you Justin, Finally someone who can explain what I feel about gaming today. I remember nights and even today its the most amazing game to exist. I'm actually poor enough to still own an old fashioned glass screen tv(thank god). I remember ocarina of time, on into dark cloud 2, and i still wonder where ANYONE thinks they went wrong. TP, just not as good. Everything is so high-def these days and it annoys me to no end. Flashy graphics are a movie thing, games are games, they shouldn't focus so much on the high def wave, and concentrate on making good games. For its time, ET atari2600 was high quality graphics, after all. I don't want gaming to die out, or worse, be sucked any more into the black hole of the vocal minority of '3 hours a week' gamers who are just jocks and burnouts trying to be cool, who whine for MOAR graphics and MOAR definition and MOAR PYLOGONS(i seriously heard that before). That's why nintendo, for all their questionable decisions, has my support. They may make casual kiddie games, but its still better than pandering to the 'pop culture crowd'. Wii U> PSXBOXo4e. The only real hope i have is that japan has a better grip than the us. Do you remember the seal of quality nintendo used to have? i miss that. Even some of the worst games of the time were still far more fun and engaging than the mindless shooty/racey/gta style games today. The important thing to remember is that people are still trying to make games. I remember Sonic and the Black Knight. Panned by all the critics, and yet it was still better than most of the stuff they'd recommend you play instead. Not that that means it was good. It was average. Still a step up from past sonic titles and far above '06. There's something wrong with getting excited over an average game. But even so there are people who are trying. Sega, Ninty, and a few other spatterings forgo the graphics for other things(Kirby's epic yarn, SatBK, etc) and these are what hold my hope for gaming to recover. We survived the crash of 83, we'll survive this, I only hope. Well this turned out far longer than expected. Back to the initial topic: SD is my favorite definition. I will actively avoid high-def stations out of spite. I think if more people did then maybe they'd pull their heads out of their squids and things would work out for the better. I personally can't even tell the difference anymore.
  • jrob23 - February 1, 2014 12:17 p.m.

    used to have? Play Pikmin 3, Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U or Mario Kart 7 or Super Mario 3D Land and tell me they lost it. Nintendo is still the king of first party quality and they more than the other two adhere to less graphics can lead to a better game as the author intimates. Just look at the Mario Galaxy games and Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii, which was supposedly underpowered and you can get a modern example of how you don't need HD for a beautiful game.
  • brickman409 - January 27, 2014 9:44 p.m.

    I have an old tube SD TV in my house just to play my retro consoles.
  • TheGooseinator - January 27, 2014 4:29 p.m.

    This article was kind of odd to me at first, but now that I think about it, a modern game like Bioshock or The Last of Us would probably look really good on standard def TV's. I should try that sometime XD
  • Bansheebot - January 27, 2014 2:29 p.m.

    I can accept low resolutions, but widescreen is a total must.
  • Cinaclov - January 27, 2014 2:07 p.m.

    I'm so glad I'm not the only one who thinks like this and (still) isn't completely sold on HD. My parents recently upgraded their TV from a massive Standard Def block from the '90s to a HD thing, which is great for when I go round with my PS3 but they couldn't understand why I begged them to keep the big '90s TV. I think they did get rid of it in the end, which is a shame, it was fantastic for playing Gamecube and Wii games on, far better than any HD TV I've encountered. However, I think I've found a kind of solution. Projectors. I run an anime group and every now and then we have gaming nights, using projectors. They're not even widescreen, but that seriously doesn't matter when the image can easily be made half the size of the wall you're projecting on (and several times the size of most folks TVs). It's definitely worth considering.
  • Sinosaur - January 27, 2014 1:29 p.m.

    While being forced to use limited resources does have the potential to inspire some subtle greatness from people, it can also sometimes just look absolutely terrible. The bigger problem is that video games have expanded to a point where the peak requires teams of hundreds of people to work on them. Small changes and ideas are less likely to shake things up, because if you're two years into production, realizing that "hey, if we added this mechanic, it would be 100 times better" means that to implement it and make all the changes, the team might need to add a year to production. There is some crossover here of a lot of different aspects: you have nostalgia for these games from when you were younger and each game held more meaning, the modern games industry has reached a point of bloat where some of the charm of a smaller group of people putting their ideas together, and the actual content has changed a great deal from what used to exist, and a change in technology makes it feel as if everyone is trying to bury the past (they aren't, they just don't care at all about it). This is why so many people are finding waning interest in the big AAA machine and more interest in the Indie scene. Or something like that, in my opinion.
  • Hashbaz - January 27, 2014 12:47 p.m.

    i disagree with almost everything said in this article. i wont break it all down because i dont have time, but basically this article boils down to two points for me. 1. He misses the good old days in his memory of his favorite games, and almost every time I read anything about lamenting how things are done now, all I can think is ''Change is Good!'' Sure those games were and still are great. My favorite system is still the SNES. But i really don't think i would be as happy with it if it were still the current system. Its like a movie or a book, the best are contained stories with an ending. Those stick with us as important. If the story is dragged on and beaten into the ground then it becomes tiresome and taints the value. So enjoy what is great about the new because when its over it will be a valuable memory too. 2. He talks about the artists being limited and being forced to create the best they could with what they had as a good thing, which is only true as a starting point. I will use the Iron Man movies as an example here. Tony stark being kidnapped and forced to work with limited tools is what inspired him to make his first suit. But does that mean he should stick with only that suit since it did such a good job breaking him out? No, tony is an artist and the first thing he does when he has all of his tools and freedom at his disposal is make a far superior work of art. The first suit was an exceptional work, but look what he could do when his hands were no longer tied. Better tools and more powerful tech allow game artist to create things they could only have dreamt of in the past. There may be problems with the new way but there were problems with the old ways too and far less possibilities on top of it.
  • Jackonomics2.0 - January 27, 2014 12:29 p.m.

    Sprites are the only exception, most things don't age well in terms of looks or better yet staying in HD for a awhile and going back to SD looks crappy as hell. Also fuck you square enix and your holy mother of shit remake of Final Fantasy 6 on phones, what the fuck is wrong with you and your heads that caused that washed up rebirth.
  • richard-kenyon - January 27, 2014 11:31 a.m.

    have to agree-i don't remember anything looking so good as super monkey ball on gamecube-actually that was on plasma! colours jumped out the screen!
  • shawksta - January 27, 2014 10:50 a.m.

    If anything HD is pretty much appreciative, as SD was still kicking ass when it does its not like we NEEDED HD until it happened and even then its just an enhancment of something that was never broke in the first place.
  • BladedFalcon - January 27, 2014 10:31 a.m.

    I'm a sprite lover, and as such, I d miss sprites, and I wish sprite graphics were used more, SPECIALLY in games that gameplay-wise are 2D as well. (Seriously, shame on all and every single platformer/sidescroller recently that has gone the cheap route of using 2:5 polygon graphics, the vast majority of those games look fucking awful, or not nearly as good or distinctive if they used sprites.) That being said, while I wasn't in any hurry to switch to HD, when I did, I did appreciate the difference, and I don't really care if games don't run on 60 FPS all the time, at least in my case, I don't ever really notice. Also, having played old PS2 games in an HDTV, I don't really think they look that bad. PS1 games do, certainly, but not PS2 graphics, at least in my opinion. And, IMO there are some older PS2 games that DID benefit from getting an HD remake. Zone of the Enders 2 being one of them, I was astounded by how good that game looked in HD even to this day, and how better the special and particle effects looked. To each their own, I suppose.
  • shawksta - January 27, 2014 10:57 a.m.

    With people like Ubisoft Montreal and Wayforward, Sprites will never die.
  • BladedFalcon - January 27, 2014 11:09 a.m.

    What Ubisoft Montreal uses isn't sprites, it's hand drawn graphics which also look pretty neat, but it's not sprites. And WayForward also seems to be moving from old school sprites to using HD hand drawn models, like the ones used in DuckTales Remastered, and their kickstarted project. (Shante: Half Genie Hero) Really, I feel like it's going to be Indies and kickstarter project mostly who are going to keep sprites alive as best as they can.
  • StrayGator - January 27, 2014 12:21 p.m.

    I think you confuse Sprites with Pixel Art. A 2D image imposed over a background is a sprite, no matter if it was drawn pixel-by-pixel, hand-drawn and then scanned, or a "flattened" render of a CG 3D model (a-la DKC, Killer Instinct). Also, Rayman Origins/Legends is Ubisoft Montpellier.

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